Dear Co-op Members,
Recently I came across an inspiring story on Medium, the online publishing platform often cited as an example of “social journalism.” The point of the article, Zebras Unite to Fix What Unicorns Broke, was this: the future should be built by humans serving communities, not by monolithic corporations serving only a single bottom line. The article focused on inclusive, altruistic tech startups, but as I read it, I couldn’t help but think about cooperatives. The ideal future the authors envisioned is something co-ops have been working toward for a long time.
How do cooperatives build the future? There are many ways, certainly. But one of the best is simply by getting together to talk and share ideas. With that in mind, on June 8, I was honored to address the 2018 Equal Exchange Northeast Summit. Equal Exchange summits bring farmers, cooperators, and activists together to network and brainstorm as we persue our shared goal of a just and democratic food system.
This year’s summit was held at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, down the street from Equal Exchange headquarters. It was an honor to speak and be a part of it, and to introduce people to the innovative way our own co-op is connecting with people and communities. We call this our Member Engagement Project.
I’d like to share my talk with you. A transcript of my full remarks appears below, and the presentation slides can be found online: https://prezi.com/view/HxkCP0llryZcbEx1kAQL/.
Want to talk about how we can build a just food system together? Reach out to me anytime. My door is always open to you.
Equal Exchange Northeast Summit 2018
Good afternoon. My name is Ed Fox, and I’m the general manager of the Co-op Food Stores.
Before I begin, I want to point out how much I love telling people that I’m the GM of a food co-op. If you can express with conviction that you enjoy what you do for a living, you are a fortunate person in this day and age. I never take this for granted. Whether we like it or not, what we do for a living and who we are is often interlinked. It’s part of our identity. That’s why it’s so important to be true to yourself, which is the point of my talk here today.
The focus of today’s panel is co-ops, our mission to build a just food system, what works, and what doesn’t. I would argue that when a co-op is true to itself and its principles, it works. It’s doing what it’s designed to do. On the flip side, when things aren’t working well, often we simply need to refocus. In particular, we should reflect on the cooperative identity that’s been passed down from the pioneers who came before us.
Some of you may be familiar with our co-op. We’re just up the road, a couple of hours north of here, where the Connecticut River cuts through a rich, fertile valley of rolling hills and small family farms on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. Our co-op is supplied by more than 300 local and regional growers and food producers throughout the year. And thanks to organizations like Equal Exchange, we’re also able to offer cooperatively made, ethically produced, and fairly traded products from around the world. We couldn’t exist without this global network of fair-trade cooperatives and small family farms. So by any measure, food justice is important to us, for both ethical and practical reasons.
Our co-op exists in an agriculture-rich region. We have locations in Vermont and New Hampshire, a wonderful area in which to live and work. At our original store in Hanover, New Hampshire, an Ivy-League school is on one side of the store and the Appalachian Trail is on the other. Thru-hikers tell us they come to our store because they heard about it on the trail, looking for a source of good, healthy food while winding their way from Georgia to Maine.
We’re an old co-op, one of the oldest in the United States. After more than 80 years in business, we’ve weathered both good times and bad. We’re also a unique business in that we’re something of a hybrid in terms of our offerings. Like most co-ops, we provide our members with local, natural, fairly traded, and organic products. Yet we also provide conventional groceries, like those found in a chain store. In short, we are both conventional and non-conventional. This means there are twice as many ways to get into trouble.
Officially, our name is the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, Inc. Some call us the Hanover Co-op. Others call us the Co-op Food Stores. Others just call us the Co-op. As you can see, identity is dicey. What an organization really is, the miscellaneous bric-a-brac beneath the outer shell, is something of a mystery unless you nail it down and stick to it. “Who in the world am I?” asks Alice, just after she has grown giant in size and frightened the White Rabbit away.
So who are we, really? Who are the people in this room? Our shared identity is that we are people working for socioeconomic justice in our food system. That’s what unites us. And by any standard, this is a noble thing. In this fractured, contentious time, the world needs more people committed to justice.
Yet recently, one of our co-op’s long-term employees told me there was a time, not too long ago, when it wasn’t easy to articulate what our co-op was all about. It wasn’t for a bad reason. We were simply trying to do too many good things at once. We studied other cooperatives we admired, took inspiration from them, and acted upon that inspiration. This is good, of course. One of the cooperative principles, Principle Six, encourages cooperatives to borrow ideas from one another. Good artists copy, said Picasso. Great artists steal.
But in our case, we were going in a lot of different directions. We learned that what worked for the members of one co-op may not work for the members of another. So a couple of years ago, we decided to focus and make sure we were in sync with our members.
We started with visioning work. This led to a new mission. Then we took that mission to the source of who we are: our membership. We called this initiative our Member Engagement Project. Since we’ve launched it, it’s influenced every area of our business.
The way the Member Engagement Project works is this: To guide us in our decision-making, we want to do the will of our members. This is simple enough to understand, and integral to what member-owned co-ops are all about. The problem is we can’t know exactly what 24,000 members want. But we can seek guidance from a portion of that membership, a group of people who represents the whole. To do this, we created “personas,” or snapshots of our members.
To build our personas, we interviewed members, gathered data, and categorized common trends and characteristics. We learned more about our members’ expectations and motivations. Then we created member personas, gave them names, and got to know them.
The end result is this: We still can’t ask 24,000 members what they want, but we can say, “What would Jess expect from us?” Or, “What would Carol do?” This keeps us focused on important goals like reliable food access, a triple bottom line, a resilient food system, and furthering cooperative commerce.
This is how a member-owned cooperative should work. Engaging with members should be at the forefront of our actions and at the heart of everything we do.
At this point in our Member Engagement Project, two personas have been finalized, and several more are in the works. I’d like for you to meet one of them now.
My friends, meet Carol.
Carol represents many of our members. She is not one person, but a composite of many different people with like-minded values and interests. Her goals are healthy eating, supporting important causes both at home and abroad, and wanting her children and grandchildren to have a healthy and happy life. What motivates Carol is helping others succeed. As a result, she wants her time and money to support noble causes, and she values shopping that can help her to have a positive impact on her world.
Carol cares about her co-op because she cares about the world around her. She cares about things like the Co-op Sister Coffee Program, which completes a fully cooperative supply chain. In this program, CIRSA, our partner co-op in Chiapas, Mexico, grows the beans. Our friends here at Equal Exchange, a worker co-op, buys the beans and sells them to us. Then our co-op, a retail cooperative, sells the coffee to consumers. Carols also cares that 40 cents of every pound goes back into a fund to support our friends at CIRSA.
In closing, let me circle back to what brought me here.
When it comes to building a just food system, what works is being true to who we are, and never losing sight of what our members want. Co-op members do want food justice. It’s important to them. They want to be advocates for causes like SNAP benefits and a $15 minimum wage. They want Pennies for Change, our innovative way of raising money at the registers for area nonprofits. They want the Double Up Bucks program, a discount on fruits and vegetables for economically disadvantaged shoppers. They want us to donate tons of food each year to Willing Hands, a nonprofit in our area that collects nutritious, high-quality food and distributes it to the needy in our communities. They want local. They want fair trade. They want justice.
In short, thanks in part to our Member Engagement Program, we know that our members care about the things all of us in this room care about: humanitarian service, small family farms, fairly traded goods, socioeconomic justice, egalitarian structures, cooperative principles and values, and a healthy planet to support it all.
Nelson Mandela once said that down the years, human society has pitted itself against the evils of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Progress, Mandela said, has been achieved while reverses have also been sustained. And to paraphrase his broader point, it is incumbent on us to be in the company of those who have recorded more success than failure.
Our Member Engagement Project keeps us focused on success. Human beings, in all their diversity and wonder, can’t be neatly categorized into personas, of course. And who would want to? But the general idea behind this project helps to keep us on track, to remind us who we are. It’s just another tool to assist us as we work toward a just and ethical food system. And best of all, if we ever stray, we have an easy way to get back on track. We can simply ask:
“What would Carol Do?”